India's politicians pushed further into the realm of "riot politics" on Thursday, as ethnically distinct Indians from the country's northeastern states continued to flee Indian cities. The panic was spurred by false rumors, spread by text message and on social media, that people from the northeast had been targeted for new attacks in cities like Bangalore, Chennai and Pune.
At the same time, there was a resurgence of violence in Assam, where strife between the indigenous Bodo tribe and Bengali-speaking Muslims has resulted in the deaths of nearly 80 people and caused some 400,000 people to flee their homes for the safety of refugee camps, according to local media reports.
False rumors spreading panic
The conflict was originally limited to Congress-ruled Assam, where the mostly Hindu Bodos appear to have the upper hand (most of the refugees in relief camps are Muslims, according to reports). But it has now spread to other states, including Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled Karnataka and AIADMK-ruled Tamil Nadu, where there has been panic and exodus by northeasterners, with little or no violence, stemming from reprisal violence by Muslims in Mumbai over the weekend.
The Times of India reported Friday that people from the northeast continued to flee from cities such as Bangalore, Chennai, Pune and Mumbai, even as ethnic clashes between Bodos and Muslims spread to new districts in Assam.
More than 3,000 laborers from the northeast living in Chennai thronged the train station attempting to leave the Tamil Nadu capital, though only 300 could board the weekly Egmore-Dibrugarh Express to Assam, the paper said. Meanwhile, in Bangalore more people from the northeast quit their jobs to leave the city, following the exodus of some 6,800 people on Wednesday night.
According to Zee News and various other outlets, the panic was caused by false rumors reporting violence against people from the northeast in cities like Bangalore, where some 240,000 people from the northeast region have migrated to participate in the IT outsourcing hub's economic boom.
"The chief minister informed members of parliament from the state in New Delhi that he has directed police to investigate the wild rumors against northeast people in Bangalore and alleged threats to their students as a backlash against the ethnic violence in Assam," Zee News quoted an official of the Karnataka chief minister's office as saying.
Bangalore police have begun tracing inflammatory messages sent through SMS and MMS, e-mails and postings on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter that first panicked the city's northeastern residents, Zee News said.
"As most of the messages received on mobiles through SMS or MMS are originating from Assam and other northeastern states, Mumbai and Kolkata in Hindi, Assamese and Bengali without names or place from where they were being sent, we are taking the help of all service providers across the country to identify the culprits," the news channel quoted Bangalore Deputy Commissioner of Police (intelligence) Vincent S D'Souza as saying.
"The fact that only northeast people/students are getting rumors and not others on their mobiles as SMS or MMS reveals that they are being sent from the northeastern region to their kith and kin living in Bangalore or other cities of the state," D'Souza said.
Hindu Right "fishing in troubled waters"
According to the Hindustan Times, the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the BJP (its political wing) are "fishing in troubled waters" to garner support for their ideology of Hindutva (or "Hinduness") -- which suggests that Muslims and other minority groups have been given too many advantages by India's constitution.
"As Assam riots rage on - causing reverberations in Maharashtra and Karnataka - the RSS and the BJP have a readymade Hindutva issue: a fight between 'Indians' and 'illegal Bangladeshi Muslim immigrants'," the paper reported Friday.
Repeatedly under attack over the Gujarat riots of 2002, the BJP sees the Assam riots as an opportunity to attack the Congress government there and appeal to Assamese voters. For the RSS, this provides an opportunity to appropriate north-eastern tribes - the Sangh's influence has been limited in the north-eastern states - within a wider 'Hindu' narrative.
Notably, the Hindu Right has long been engaged in a struggle for the allegiance of India's tribal peoples. The RSS and affiliated organizations claim that the animist religions of India's tribal peoples are really offshoots of Hinduism, and have worked hard in tribal regions to bring these groups into the fold. But controversial missionary activities by Christian groups -- with allegations of enticements and forced conversions -- have also made in-roads with tribal groups across the country. (The Bodos are mostly Hindus, according to census figures, but the number of Christians is growing).
"Workers of the RSS have met north-eastern students and offered all help for their safety and security," the HT quoted RSS joint general secretary Dattatreya Hosabale as telling reporters in Guwahati.
PTI quoted BJP president Nitin Gadkari as saying, "The problem in Assam is not communal but that of Indians versus outsiders. Anti-national people are involved in this violence. In Mumbai, the crowd waved the Pakistani flag, made provocative statements and vandalised the martyrs' memorial."
As the HT rightly points out, that's a highly useful spin for the BJP and RSS, which are frequently occused of so-called "communal" politics -- a term which refers to stoking tensions between India's religious communities for political gain. Not only does Gadkari sanitize any further rhetoric against Muslims from the "communal" taint, he drives home his organization's argument that the conflict stems from encroachment by modern day invaders -- illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
Accordingly, the RSS and other right-wing Hindu outfits have mobilized to support northeasterners attempting to flee Bangalore and other cities, providing food and other services while exhorting them to not to flee.
"With the help of non-government organisations and civil society members, the [RSS] activists have arranged lunch and supper to hundreds of northeast people, including students camping at the railway station for the next elusive train to Guwahati or Howrah" in Bangalore, Zee News reported.
The RSS student-affiliate ABVP set up 24-hour helplines in 20 cities across India on Thursday for northeastern students, the HT said, while people from the northeast who rushed to the Bangalore Railway Station to board trains to Guwahati found about 250 RSS volunteers there to protect them.
Conflict not rooted in illegal immigration, says government report
Though Bodo groups, the RSS and others have traced the original conflict in Assam to local anxiety about an influx of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, however, a report from the government's National Commission for Minorities claimed that the violence in Assam resulted from a conflict between Bodo groups and "resident Muslims of Bodoland Territorial Area District (BTAD)," rather than immigrants.
“Most people feel this strife is caused because the Bodos think that driving out other ethnic people is in their interest. The Bodo population is nearly 30 per cent...They feel that if their population goes up to 50 per cent they will be able to demand statehood...,” the Indian Express quotes the report of the team sent to the area by the commission as saying.
The report cites refugees as saying that they fear “recurrent violence” and believe that looting of Muslim homes is part of a plan to ensure that they are unable to return home, the paper said.
As GlobalPost reported on Thursday, so-called "riot politics" is a prominent feature in India's political contests.
Too often in India's history, whether in Gujarat in 2002, Ayodha in 1992 or New Delhi in 1984, political leaders of all stripes have encouraged or capitalized on inter-ethnic violence to polarize the electorate and distract voters from issues -- like their failure to provide power, water and roads -- that go beyond caste and creed.
Academics like Ashutosh Varshney and Steven I Wilkinson have argued convincingly that India's riots are rarely, if ever, the spontaneous eruptions of rage they may appear to be from outside. Rather, “parties that represent elites within ethnic groups” use anti-minority protests, demonstrations and physical attacks that precipitate riots in order to “encourage members of their wider ethnic category to identify with their party and the ‘majority’ identity to rather than a party that is identified with economic redistribution or some ideological agenda,” as Wilkinson once put it in an essay for The Economic and Political Weekly.
So is that what we're witnessing now?
This July, seemingly spontaneous violence erupted in the northeast Indian state of Assam, with members of the Bodo tribe clashing with Bengali-speaking Muslims. Local Bodo leaders and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) stalwarts like L.K. Advani immediately argued that the cause of the conflict was illegal immigration from Bangladesh, a regular feature of the right wing fear campaign that proposes a (fictional)* Muslim horde is fast overwhelming India's Hindu majority.** On social media, right-leaning tweeters and bloggers slammed Indian television channels for their tardiness in covering the attacks -- arguing that a pro-Congress party bias prevented NDTV and CNN/IBN from publicizing riots in a Congress-ruled state, in contrast to the media frenzy that followed the 2002 Hindu-Muslim riots in BJP-ruled Gujarat.
In the end, around 80 people were reportedly killed (far fewer than in Gujarat, incidentally). But some 400,000 people were forced to flee from their homes. Rioters set fire to houses, schools and public buses. Eventually, the central government deployed para military troops and 13 columns of the army to the affected areas--issuing shoot-on-sight orders and enforcing a curfew in the district that was the epicenter of the violence.
Various sources traced the start of the violence to the alleged murder of four Bengali-speaking Muslims, which the police failed to solve, or to the killing of four former Bodo Liberation Tigers on July 20, or to the death of two Bodo student leaders on July 4. Rumors spread that the state's Muslims had planned the violence in advance, and that the Bodos had amassed weapons before the riots broke out in preparation for a pogrom. And, of course, everybody chose whichever version best suited his political views on Bangladeshi migrants, the Congress Party, and the supposed Muslim peril. (See "The Myth of the Bangladeshi and Violence in Assam" here).
This month, the violence has spread to other states, with Muslim groups apparently targeting ethnic minorities from the northeast (not only Bodos) in cities like Mumbai, Bangalore and Pune.
Mumbai police on Sunday arrested and charged 23 people with murder, following weekend riots that resulted in the death of two people and serious injuries to more than 50 others, according to News Live.
The police suspect that the violence was pre-meditated and allege that unspecified instigators spread the word through Facebook and text messages, News Live said.
Meanwhile, police in nearby Pune have claimed that attacks on people from the northeast in that city may have been linked to the Mumbai incident, as the same video clips (of killings in Myanmar) were used to incite violence there.
Senior police officials said it appears that the video clips were being circulated in a most systematic manner to threaten peace and engineer riots, India's Daily News & Analysis newspaper reported.
Across the country, thousands of northeasterners living in Bangalore piled into trains for Guwahati (in Assam) on Wednesday night, after rumors spread that they, too, would soon be targeted for violent attacks, the Hindu reports.
All that would be bad enough, but things promise to get worse, if India's notoriously cynical politicians succeed in turning these riots into an election issue -- thus guaranteeing that the bad feelings fester and eventually boil over again.
After Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's lackluster Independence Day speech Wednesday, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi should have had plenty to criticize him for -- given that the PM essentially repeated the excuses he's been mouthing for the past two years. But in focusing on the riots, and Bangladeshi migrants, he hinted that the man who once called relief camps for Muslim victims of the Gujarat riots "breeding centers" has not undergone a complete transformation.
"The infiltration of Bangladeshis in India is becoming an issue of concern. Assam (violence) is just a small example of it becoming a major problem for the nation," Modi said, according to the Daily Bhaskar.
"Why the Prime Minister has remained silent on the violence in Mumbai, while he expressed remorse on the violent protests in Assam? Why this dual standards? How can a Prime Minister of a country be mum on such a serious incident?"
The prime minister should, indeed, have taken the opportunity to speak on behalf of India's long, beleaguered effort to keep the peace among its many disparate ethnic groups. But if the alternative is to whip up passions with dubious assertions, as Modi suggests, keeping mum wins hands down.
* Muslims are reproducing faster than Hindus because Muslims are allowed to have as many as four wives, the jingoistic argument runs. Of course this makes no sense. Quick biology lesson: Whether a woman has one husband or shares a husband with three others, she can only have a child once a year. The only way plural marriage could be a factor is if Muslim men were maxing out their Muslim wives and also finding Hindu ones -- a very rare occurrence here.
** India's Muslim population is, indeed, growing faster than its Hindu counterpart, largely because wealthier and more educated people tend to have fewer children, as FirstPost explains here. But even though the Hindu majority may drop below 80 percent for the first time with the release of the 2011 census data, the difference in the birth rate is projected to level off and in any case at the present pace it would take more than 200 years before Muslims became the majority.